We are big on bikes in this family. When we lived in the city we hardly ever used the car. I would load the boys into the bike trailer and ride or run the 3km into Fremantle to do the grocery shopping or swim at the beach. It is the same distance into town from our home in the forest here, and so three mornings a week I run and push the little ones up the hill while Lewis cycles ahead of me to school. Riding home together in the afternoon we all whoop with joy as we freewheel down the hill past the horse paddocks, racing to see who will be first to cross the creek.
Pushing our bikes up the hill this afternoon one of Lewis' school friends asked me why Darcy and Quinn were wearing helmets. "Because it is the law if you are riding a bike," I replied. "They aren't riding a bike," she pointed out. "If a car hit them, their heads would need to be protected, otherwise they could die," I replied.
Helmets were not compulsory when I was a kid, but I had to wear one just the same; a big white Stackhat. I used to have seizures and my parents were worried that I might have one while I was riding home from school. My sister had to wear one in solidarity, so we were both called mushroom head. Twenty years later a helmet saved my husband's life when a car drove through a stop sign as he cycled home from work. But it actually saved two lives that day - because Quinn was conceived not long after Grant came out of his wheelchair.
I remember stopping a man who was cycling down the street one block from where the car had hit Grant the day after his accident. He had his helmet dangling casually from the handlebars. "Can I just tell you something?" I said, half crazed. "My husband was hit by a car up there and if he hadn't been wearing his helmet he would be dead." He smiled and nodded politely and cycled off, helmet still hanging a good metre away from his head.
I wrote this story not long after the accident and am still often asked by friends to share it. So here it is. All you freewheeling hippies out there - put your helmet on. And while you are at it, do up the chin strap. It won't work without it.
Originally published in the West Australian, Health + Medicine, January 27 2010
I was sitting in the garden with my children waiting for their Dad to get home from work when we heard the crash. The crunch of metal on metal followed by the squeal of brakes.
My four-year-old wanted to go and look at the cars and I told him we did not do such things. But then I looked up to see two women at the gate and they told me it was my husband who had been hit and before I knew what I was doing I had hoisted a child onto each hip and was running around the corner to where he lay bleeding by the roadside.
Grant had been commuting on his bike between our home near Fremantle and his job teaching at Applecross Senior High School three times a week for over a year. Every week he had stories of near-misses with motorists overtaking him through roundabouts and chicanes and he had taken to wearing a fluorescent orange t-shirt to lessen the likelihood of becoming another road casualty.
It hadn’t helped. The driver of the car which hit him did not even see the stop-sign, let alone the vulnerable cyclist traveling just the other side of the white line.
Witnesses and police estimate the car was traveling at about 50km/h when it hit Grant, throwing him up onto the windscreen and then flinging him across the width of the entire road. He wound up with his head on the kerb and his shoulder twisted under him at a grotesque angle. Blood ran across his face from where his head had hit the windscreen. His helmet had thankfully absorbed most of the impact and saved him from more serious head-injuries.
By the time I reached him the colour had drained from his lips and face and he was starting to shake. He told me he was fine as the wail of the ambulance and police sirens came nearer but the sound of his groans as he was lifted onto the stretcher told me how much pain he was in.
It was not a long trip to Fremantle Hospital but Grant tells me he felt every bump in the road. I managed to reach the hospital not long after him after finding a babysitter and pulling on a pair of shoes and a jumper. I was still shaking with shock when the policeman called me through into the emergency ward.
Grant was away having his shoulder and pelvis x-rayed. His arm had snapped just below the shoulder - the bone had rotated in the socket and was almost poking through the skin. He would remain waiting for surgery for the next two days, an intravenous drip feeding morphine and antibiotics into his arm.
A CT scan of his pelvis the next day would reveal multiple fractures - enough to keep him in a wheelchair for the next month and using a walking stick to get around until he went back to work three months later. And then there was the broken elbow and the smaller breaks in his wrist which were missed until after the first round of surgery.
When we did get him home from hospital I found myself caring for three - two young children and an invalid. With his one good arm Grant was able to wheel himself slowly and awkwardly around our tiny house but the wheelchair would not fit into our pocket-sized bathroom so I became the puller of the commode chair and supervisor of showers.
The day after surgery a blood clot had lodged in Grant’s lower left lung. He spent the next three months on blood thinning medication and twice a week I would pile our brood onto Dad’s lap and push the family to the doctors surgery for his blood-test.
At his final appointment Grant’s surgeon called his recovery extraordinary. His humerus is now held together by metal plates and nails but he has an almost normal range of movement in his upper arm. His elbow will probably never straighten but that hasn’t stopped him from painting the house and rehanging a few sash windows. He is even back on his bike.
It wasn’t an easy thing to do and Grant says he was sweating and his heart racing when he had to face his first ride home from work. He no longer trusts intersections of any kind and will slow down until he is sure a car is braking.
But he refuses to ride down the suburban street in Hilton where he was hit and I don’t blame him. I was sitting in the park next to the intersection watching my children play on the weekend when another car sailed through the stop-sign without so much as slowing down. A cyclist who had not been wearing a helmet had ridden past just minutes before. Sometimes you get lucky.